Volume 74, Number 45 | March 16 - 22, 2005

Extra helping of political stumping at V.I.D. forum

By Ed Gold

An unequivocal position against the death penalty helped Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau score points against a serious opponent, Leslie Crocker Snyder, a former Criminal Court judge, at a candidates’ forum sponsored by Village Independent Democrats last Thursday at St. Luke in the Field School in the West Village.

The forum, part of a V.I.D. general membership meeting that drew an estimated 75 people, presented candidates competing for the City Council District 2 seat being vacated by Councilmember Margarita Lopez and those seeking the citywide public advocate position.

Morgenthau, who has held his position since 1974, called the death penalty “immoral because the state shouldn’t take a life,” adding that he had always held that belief. The distinctive characteristic of the death penalty, he added, was that “it is irreversible,” and that some of those facing capital punishment do not receive “quality representation” so errors could be made.

Snyder insisted the death penalty was “not an issue in this campaign” since it is currently unconstitutional in New York State and would remain so, she believed. She would not, she added, recommend reinstatement of the death penalty should there be a move to do so, but if it were reinstated, she would consider capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.

This last comment prompted the only outburst of the evening when a man in the back of the room shouted: “Would you put the needle in yourself?” Snyder ignored the brief interruption.

Snyder, making one of the most serious runs against Morgenthau in many years, offered a slight tweaking of the octogenarian Morgenthau by campaigning to be “a Manhattan District Attorney for the 21st century.”

Attractive and articulate, she stressed the need to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, to control gang activity in schools and housing projects, to oppose laws “skewed against women” and to promote greater sharing of intelligence information among law enforcement agencies at every level of government in the fight against terrorism.

Morgenthau boasted about having reduced murders in Manhattan — “from 648 [the year] I began to 91 last year.” He pledged a stronger effort against domestic violence, which has “steadily escalated,” and said he would work to make “cyber-stalking” a felony.

In the public advocate contest, incumbent Betsy Gotbaum contended that many voters were confused about her office, which, she said, was created “to solve peoples’ problems with government.” She gave as examples, helping people who qualify for food stamps but never receive them from government agencies, and her successful effort to get accurate cost figures for the proposed West Side stadium in the face of financial misinformation on the subject from City Hall.

She called Mayor Bloomberg’s educational policy “disappointing,” particularly in dealing with special education, which she felt was in a “chaotic state.” She also charged that the mayor “was trying to have it both ways” on same-sex marriage, which she said she favored.

A bit of levity contributed a lighter touch to the forum during a question-and-answer period when she was asked: “Can you explain in a few sentences how the city budget is arrived at?” Her response: “I would probably need at least two days to answer that.”

Then her chief opponent, civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel, came on like gangbusters.

“The office [of public advocate] has atrophied,” he said with vigor. “If the present occupant remains, the position will be eliminated.”

He promised, if elected, to establish satellite offices in each borough, to ask everyone to participate in bringing issues to his office, to hold frequent town hall meetings and to produce management evaluation reports on many major agencies.

Admitting he had “a big mouth,” Siegel added that he wouldn’t take a city car but would ride the trains and buses. He would also take on the semiautonomous operations like Port Authority and Metropolitan Transit Authority and if he found wrongdoing he would “sue the bastards,” although questions were raised as to whether the public advocate has that power.

He received a big hand when he concluded by claiming he was “a perfect fit for the job.”

Bronx Assemblymember Michael Benjamin, with 20 years of public service, another candidate for public advocate, was a no-show at the forum.

The contest for the District 2 Council seat, which represents the East Village, Lower East Side, Gramercy Park and Murray Hill, brought six candidates to the forum, with the audience reaction tilting towards Rosie Mendez, a Democratic district leader and former chief of staff to Councilmember Lopez.

Others in the Council race who attended included Gur Tsabar, a former advisor to Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who is running for mayor; Darren Bloch, who has worked for former Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Congressmember Carolyn McCarthy; Brian Kavanagh, until recently chief of staff for Manhattan Councilmember Gale Brewer; Reverend Joan Brightharp, pastor of the Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church of Christ on the Lower East Side; and Christopher Papajohn, a Boston transplant who once worked for Michael Dukakis, former Democratic candidate for president.

Mendez, to frequent applause, stressed her struggle for higher wages “for some workers making as little as $2 an hour,” her participation in antiwar marches, her opposition to school closings and her demand that developers commit to building at least 30 percent of new apartments for poor and middle-class families.

She also chided large educational institutions that have benefited from favorable zoning arrangements to build large buildings that have met with community opposition. “I’m talking about not-for-profit institutions like N.Y.U., and I use ‘not-for-profit’ loosely,” she said with a smile.

Kavanagh, picking up on the same subject, called for changes in the community facility zoning allowance that permits institutions like universities to build structures two to three times larger than a private developer would be allowed to build on the same site. The zoning allowance also permits institutions to rent out considerable portions of their buildings to commercial tenants to generate income. He cited Cooper Union as a major beneficiary of this bonus zoning.

Kavanagh also commented on liquor licensing and alluded to over-saturation. He said city zoning laws are needed to protect city communities since the State Liquor Authority is solely a state vehicle.

Bloch seized on the no-smoking issue, arguing that the mayor could have developed a better solution: “We should have permitted restaurants and bars, at their expense, to build special smokers’ rooms, completely separated from their main premises. That would have solved the noise problem generated by smokers gathering in the street, and would have eliminated the secondary smoke problem.”

Tsabar decried the small percentage of voters who participate in City Council elections, suggesting that councilmembers had to be more “community based.” He felt strongly about education and said the mayor’s plan “lets too many children fall through the cracks.” He urged greater emphasis on early childhood development.

Reverend Brightharp claimed that, “God had placed her in this position” of running for the Council. Her passion was for poor people, she explained, and “many of my people can’t afford affordable housing.”

Admitting he was an “outsider,” Papajohn, who had no literature to hand out at the forum, decried the “huge gap between rich and poor,” urged a massive W.P.A.-like effort to create jobs and said no city land should be given to private developers.

An unexpected guest showed up after the Council candidates had finished in the person of Councilmember Lopez who was asked to speak and made the most of her opportunity. She urged the crowd to support Mendez for the Council seat she will be forced to vacate at year’s end because of the two-term limit. Thanking V.I.D. for its support in the past and urging support in her current quest for the borough presidency, she ended with a flourish: “I love this country. I adore New York City. And I promise to be very progressive if I’m elected.” The audience gave her a good sendoff, and the meeting was adjourned.

The club did not endorse for any of the politicians last week, but plans to do so in May.

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